Last Tuesday a group of University of Oregon students (and one Lewis and Clark student) spent six hours at the Oregon State Penitentiary for a writing workshop with Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen challenged us to think and write about restorative justice on a person-to-person scale. We looked beyond the rhetoric and the system-wide possibilities and just focused on people and our truth. The stories of real pain and real restoration moved and inspired us. What emerged was an image of restorative justice as a daily philosophy, not just a reaction to legal transgressions. When Sister Helen first asked us, “What restores you?” I conjured up a feeling of tranquility. I imagined myself alone, calm and meditating—somewhere outdoors. But those moments are rare in my weekly undertakings and so my answer to the question evolved throughout the day. Aided by the insightful comments of my peers, I began to concentrate more on what is truly visceral and powerful in my life. I realized that the tearful, blubbering conversation I’d had with my best friend from home that week—despite its chaos and noise—was restorative for me. Before this, I tended to think of restoration like a reset: take a step back and a deep breath, and then prepare to dive back in. Talking about it in the group reframed it more as nourishment. As several participants pointed out, our experiences shape us continuously and there is no “default” to return to.
Our second prompt was to think about what it looks like to live in a restorative way. I thought back to the surge I felt in my heart after that weepy phone call. My conclusion was that, in order to live restoratively, I need to know my own needs. I must be comfortable with my vulnerability, find out what it takes to restore me, and then ask for it. It might be messy and noisy, but it’s real. Another participant said it best: in a restorative world, we demand more of ourselves than of others.